Is Hollywood “All About Money?”

[Note:  Due to time constraints, Andrew's Monday talk with Mike Gallagher has been moved to Tuesday this week.]

One of the remarks I often hear from people who have never worked in the movie business is, “Hollywood is all about money.  They just make whatever movies they think will sell.”  Folks usually trot this out when I point to the decades-long left-wing slant of our popular entertainment.  “Oh, no movie-making has nothing to do with politics,” they say.  “Hollywood is all about money…”

But like other such remarks—“all men ever think about is sex,” and “all politicians are the same,”—“Hollywood is all about money,” sounds cynical and worldly-wise but comes nowhere near the truth.

For one thing, at various places along the chain of production, there are writers and directors who want to express their visions, actors who want to stretch their craft and even studio executives who want a couple of films on their slates they can be proud of and that will win awards.  Just like everyone else, people in Hollywood have a number of different motives for doing what they do.

But yes, they also want to make money.  It’s a business.  That’s one of the points of the exercise.

Most people, however, don’t understand how the money is made.   The fact is, the original cause-and-effect relationship between good movies and high profits has long been inoperative.

A book called The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies by Edward Jay Epstein explains a good deal.  Epstein points out that while journalists obsess over who “won the weekend” at the box office, films make only a very small percentage of their take in theaters.  The rest comes from other sources such as international distribution deals, property licensing, DVD releases and overpriced popcorn.

This is not the way the movie business began.  There was a time, as Epstein points out, when some eighty percent of the active population went to a film every single week.  What’s more, studios made all the movies and owned most American theaters.  This made the relationship between filmmakers and the public very clear:  if you gave the people what they wanted, you made money.  That meant, in turn, that the sensibility of ordinary Americans ultimately ruled.  If some snooty intellectual writer or director imagined himself above the common herd, or some brain-challenged actor held a bunch of idiot political opinions, the studios simply couldn’t afford to let those attitudes pollute the films they made.  To paraphrase Samuel Johnson:  Those who live to please must please to live.

Today, as Epstein’s book explains, only about ten percent of the population goes to the movies every week.  As a result, studios must create a new audience for each film.  Even if they succeed, only multiple other income streams and clever financing deals can keep the movie-making apparatus afloat.  The result is that the direct link between wide-ranging popularity and profits has broken down.  The desires and attitudes of niche markets and foreign audiences can be as powerful as those of the ordinary American.

With pressure from conservatives brought to bear against liberal Hollywood, conservative popular films can still be made and sold—a look at this summer’s line-up from Iron Man 2 to Robin Hood and even the libertarian Sex and The City sequel will bear that out.  But radicalism and nutbaggery can also win the day through smart marketing and financing, even if they die the death at the box office.

Thus films, especially prestige films intended to win good reviews and awards, continue to be dominated by the liberals who dominate LA–and will be until conservatives seize a place at the table.

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  • K

    Thanks Andrew. This is the clearest explanation of the financial underpinnings of leftist Hollywood movie making that I’ve read so far.

    It seems to me that foreign markets, which provide half or more of a picture’s grosses these days, is a major hurtle to making pro American, conservative oriented pictures mainstream again.

  • SeeingDouble

    Thanks for this, Andrew…

    You bump up against it but there are other implications: 1) NATO has polled Americans and over 80% want to see movies at the theater, but we know they don’t; 2) Studios need to make money on balance and are willing to take a loss on films they deem “worthy.”

    In other words, millions of Americans stay home because of the movies being made, which not only don’t reflect their political views but their moral views. And, execs and filmmakers alike often see themselves as crusaders for their liberal worldview, both political and philosophical, for whom making a buck and satisfying audiences is only incidental. They only need to make enough to keep the lights on while they continue to satisfy their primary drives. Satisfying themselves is the primary goal, whether that’s achieved through awards or the sense that they are properly schooling the unwashed masses.

    If conservatives stepped up to satisfy American audiences, both active and potential, I suspect the industry could double its annual box office, if not more. Which leads to a point in response to K…

    Other than Europe, conservative, moral films do MUCH better overseas in places like Latin America, India, Africa, Asia, and Muslim nations. Europe is a small slice of the international pie. But since the gatekeepers aren’t as interested in making money as they are in making a point, K is right by default.

  • sqt

    Hollywood has become so insular that there isn’t any “just” making money involved ever. I lived and worked in Hollywood and what passes for values in that town would blow most people away. I don’t know if the fallback argument of it being all about money is sincerely believed or not– but I do know that most libs in Hollywood aren’t butting up against different beliefs very often and they do inject their bias into everything. Foolish to believe otherwise. I think Andrew also makes a great point about movies that are made ostensibly as Oscar winning vehicles. What better way to account for the lack of profitability without having to admit to bias than to call it an “art” film.

  • astorian

    Ask yourself, if Jim Carrey were motivated primarily by money, why would he make a movie like “The Majestic” when he could have made “Ace Ventura 3” and gotten a 25 million dollar paycheck?

    If Tom Cruise were primarily motivated by money, why would he appear in “Lions for Lambs” when he could have starred in “Mission: Impossible 4” for a fortune?

    Oh, it’s not that Carrey and Cruise don’t love money- they do! But even more than money, they want to be ADMIRED by their peers! They want the Oscar that will offer the reassurance that, “They LIKE me, they really, really LIKE me!”

    The public at large doesn’t care about the McCarthy era, but Hollywood insiders do. So, Jim Carrey made ”The Majestic” to win their admiration, and (he hoped) an Oscar. The public doesn’t want to watch anti-Bush movies, but Hollywood insiders do, and Tom Cruise longs for their approval.

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  • Bill

    Where do you submit a screenplay that has traditional values, character, and conservative overtones? Are there any producers or studio’s looking for scripts like this. And if not. Why are conservative’s not making more strides to do so?

  • living in a dream world

    when you live your life in the gutter all you see is rubbish. When all you see is rubbish, rubbish is all you know. When all you know is Rubbish all you create is…. Rubbish.
    Ultimately there is no way that hollyweard can produce anything else, its going to take others. With online distribution coming along its going to take people with capital to distribute descent films but it will be possible to sidestep the “elitist”

  • cast iron guttering

    Oh!…that’s great helpful, it’s so right to me! Million thanks for the article,

  • Guicansado

    Astorian, it is not the actors who initially chose which movies they want to do or not do; The producers go down a list of the actors they want, and get the ones that are within their budget, fame and availability. It is a business, and just like a managerial accountant does for coca cola, a “producer” balances out what is most profitable. Which is why sometimes you get a really crappy movie with a Oscar winning actor. They decided to invest in a famous actor to draw audiences. Think of it like this, a actor is nothing without Hollywood, Hollywood is still the same without a actor.